SALT LAKE CITY — Carmen sits a little right of center on the metal stairs leading to an upper platform. A few white lights cut through the dark at an angle and one rests on her as she sings her power ballad towards the end of Act II. The singing is moving, the design is gorgeous, but the subject matter…seems a bit tired. That moment really defines The Grand Theatre’s production of Fame. Cast and crew have assembled a great show that only buckles with the script.
It started out as a movie. Fame, the film, was conceived and produced by David De Silva hitting the theatres in 1980. Its success spawned a television series of the same name in 1982, and in 1988 De Silva teamed with bookwriter Jose Fernandez, composer Steve Margoshes, and lyricist Jacque Levy to create the first stage adaptation, Fame on 42nd Street, which premiered in Miami, Florida. A London production of Fame — The Musical has been playing since 1995, and it played off-Broadway in New York in 2003-04.
Such a traveled title seems to suggest there is something about this story and songs that audiences can relate to. The show opens to a crowd of high school students waiting for acceptance to the New York City’s High School of Performing Arts (P.A.). The group navigates their way through the dance/theatre/music tracks and of course, the hormone-filled adventure of finding love on the way to the next class. Themes of illiteracy, sex, drugs and growing up dot the script. None of these is explored too deeply, which is a positive for conservative parents, but treating so many of these topics in such a quick show almost makes light of them. Fame is the after school special of musical theatre.
Despite the dated script (it’s execution, not the content), The Grand’s production team really excel at creating a beautiful show that audiences will be sure to enjoy.
Ashley Carlson-Gardner‘s choreography is best in the group numbers. She brings a lot of energy and athleticism to the entire cast, but particularly impressive are actors Leah Hasset and Jeremy David Egan. The two performer’s execution and attitude felt natural and effortless. Halee Rasmussen‘s set design reminds me of a rock concert, and lighting by Dan Efros brings that feel to a new level. This is some of the best rock lighting I’ve seen in a Utah theatre. Efros paints the stage and creates impactful visuals like with Carmen during “In L.A.” Amanda Reiser‘s costumes seem simple, but there were a number of times during the large group numbers (like “Fame”) that I caught myself marveling at how great they looked when paired with Efros’s lighting. I would honestly recommend seeing this show simply to admire how the lighting, costumes and choreography come together.
Musically, actors in the adult roles show a clear maturity in their voices over the younger performers. “The Teacher’s Argument” between Ms. Bell (Angela Chatelain Avila) and Miss Sherman (Julie Silvestro Waite) is an excellent example. Up to that point I blamed my inability to hear lyrics on that sound designer, but once Avila and Waite began their song I learned that understanding lyrics depends more on the performer than the equipment. Avila and Waite’s voices were strongly supported, carried beautifully over the band and confirmed that Jennifer Jackson’s sound design was solid.
The remaining college-age cast has some room to grow. Thankfully, there is a good foundation for most of the characters. Natale McAneney‘s Carmen has a strong personality, and McAneney relates really well with her fellow actors. Reactions felt natural, but her character development didn’t feel entirely supported through the show. Part of this is due to the script: scenes are short and episodic. As soon as a small detail was revealed about Carmen the story quickly switched to band practice with Schlomo and the gang, the brief love story between Tyrone (William Richardson) and Iris (Leah Hasset), or Nick (Jeremy David Egan) and his superfan Serena, played by Allie Hurtado. (Hurtado’s voice is worth mentioning. Her “Let’s Play A Love Scene” was perhaps the strongest of the younger soloists with supported tone and good projection.)
As I sit in the audience I like to think about the theatre I’m visiting and its place in the local community. A lot of small theatres have started up recently and may soon disappear. The Grand has a unique situation being partnered with Salt Lake Community College. I see them as largely an educational theatre for the performers (and in this respect I think they’ve done an impeccable job for these performers). Their season selection and community involvement seems to be growing. I can tell that building roots into the local neighborhoods and college is important. Their volunteer staff really expresses that. I would strongly encourage you to attend this production. Not for the script. Maybe for the music. Definitely for the technical elements, and to get a glimpse at the solid performers The Grand is helping to build.